"Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" At St. Louis Muny Improves Upon MGM's Classic Film

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Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was a smash hit for MGM in 1954, featuring Jane Powell as Milly Bradon and Howard Keel and Adam Pontipee, two lost souls that don’t seem to be right for each other, but like any great musical they would end up happily ever after in the end. Of course, 1954 was a different world from today. I had never seen the film or the musical theatre adaptation before Covid struck. I watched the movie during the quarantine and felt a bit uneasy with some of the elements that were obviously…hopefully…meant as farce. Abducting girls to take as wives, their seeming development of Stockholm Syndrome, the shotgun weddings to make it all OK, the heavy dose of sexism throughout—it might not be as immediately offensive as watching All in the Family on TV for the first time, but politically correct it was not. The choreography, however, was some of the wildest dancing I’ve ever seen, and it had Julie Newmar in it—meow! 

Roughly a year later, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers bounced lively onto the oldest and largest outdoor stage in America, the famed St. Louis Muny in Forest Park. From the book by Lawrence Kasha and David Landay (who, according to Artistic Director Mike Isaacson’s notes in the Muny’s program, spent part of the Covid shutdown “giving the script a few tweaks and tucks”) with music by Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer and new songs by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn, this production felt like a more complete package, managing to be just as fun and a little more heartfelt without being quite so politically incorrect. 

A new framing sequence opened Act I with Milly (Kendra Kassebaum) telling the family’s unusual history to her grandchildren. Flashback to the Oregon Territory around 1850, as Adam (Edward Watts) ambled into town singing “Bless Your Beautiful Hide” in a lush baritone. One can’t help but wonder if that would be the 1850s (or even 1954) equivalent of George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” or Sir Mix a Lot’s “Baby Got Back” for the bold audacity of declaring a woman to be as beautiful as a beaver pelt. As Adam surveyed the ladies of the village in search of a bride, he heard a commotion nearby—Milly was sassing back to her demanding boss at the local dining establishment. He liked a little sass in a woman, so he followed her inside where he watched the townies grope her and make crude comments. A mountain of a mountain man, Adam tossed the nearest ne’er-do-well out on his ear nearly one-handed. He gave the rest of the patrons a stern look and they dashed off, leaving him alone with his two-seconds old choice for his bride. He wasted no time telling her so and she didn’t spend much more time thinking about it before saying yes. He whisked her away to his home in the mountains, proud to have a pretty bride who could cook and see to the house. Milly was excited to finally have a peaceful existence, just her and her new beau, and some chickens and livestock.  

Alas, poor Milly only knew one-seventh of it. Upon arrival, Adam’s six brothers came out to greet the eldest of the family and his surprising new bride. Benjamin (Harris Milgrim), Caleb (Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva), Daniel (Ryan Steele), Ephraim (Garett Hawe), Frank (Kyle Coffman), and Gideon (Brandon L. Whitmore), welcomed her but quickly gave in to their usual roughneck ways. Milly then realized she wasn’t marrying just Adam—the Pontipees were a package deal. Not long after, Adam and Milly escorted the boys to town for the last social of the year. There the younger Pontipees each found themselves “Goin’ Courtin’” with future brides of their own from among Milly’s circle of friends: Dorcas (Leslie Donna Flesner), Ruth (Sarah Meahl), Liza (Kristin Yancy), Martha (Carly Blake Sebouhian), Sarah (Shonica Gooden), and Alice (Mikayla Renfrow). As usual, when the Pontipees went to town trouble and fisticuffs hitched a ride in with them. Milly tended to their wounds when they got home, but she couldn’t do much to sooth the newfound aches of love in their hearts. Adam read the Bible and a book called “The Sobbin’ Women” to his brothers, and concocted the rather hair-brained idea to go back to town and just take the girls, with no regard for societal niceties. 

Act 2 opened with the boys in town, trying to decide how best to gather the girls. In what I must assume was one of David Landay’s tweaks, the girls basically turned the tables, giving the boys a playful bit of “What kept you?” before climbing into Adam’s wagon. Thank goodness—the kidnapping and subsequent acceptance of said kidnapping, of presumably underage girls, no less—was one of the things about the film I really struggled with, but here it felt more whimsical than felonious. They didn’t escape unnoticed, of course, and the townspeople took off after them. Part way up the mountain between the Pontipee homestead and the town was a narrow, snow-covered pass. At just the precise moment, Adam fired off a couple of rifle shots into the air, the loud retort of his gun echoed between the steep walls of the pass and triggered an avalanche to block the way. The townspeople would have to wait until spring to rescue their young ladies, but winter wasn’t all warm and cozy up on the mountain either. Mortified by the brothers’ actions, she forbade them from sleeping in the house with their sweethearts—including Adam. Letting his pride get the best of him, Adam hiked further up the mountain to his family’s old hunting lodge. The prevailing thought in everyone’s mind was made evident in the song “We Gotta Make It Through the Winter.” As the snow gave way to green grass again, the brothers frolicked with their ladies (“Spring, Spring, Spring”), but Adam was stubbornly late, only coming down after Brother Gideon told him that it wasn’t just Milly he was abandoning for his foolish pride. When the townspeople finally arrived to find everyone happy and healthy, they put aside their differences and all ended happily ever after, just as big famous musicals should. 

The framing sequence worked well enough, with the grandchildren thanking Grandma Milly for telling them about their heritage. After the kids left the stage, Milly had a short conversation with her husband before flashing back to the wedding she shared with her six brides and seven brothers. I don’t want to give too much away, but the scene had a touch of melancholy to it that seemed oddly placed just before what should be the big “Awww!” moment of the wedding. Overall, whatever changes Mr. Landay made to the script and the additional songs by Kasha and Hirschhorn elevated the production above its source material as far as political correctness is concerned. The whole tale was much more palatable to me than the movie had been. 

Kassebaum and Watts displayed strong chemistry with each other. Despite the breakneck pace of the story, the sense of love the characters developed for one another underneath all the bravado, sassiness and occasional exasperation showed through. Kassebaum, who was born in raised in St. Louis before attending what is now Missouri State University, brings a sparkling list of credits and well-deserved accolades home with her. Watts was a blast to watch fill Howard Keel’s shoes. His Adam comes across a little less “I’m the man, you’re the woman, and you’ll do as I say!” and more respectful despite his hard upbringing and pridefulness. This made Adam much more tolerable, at least for me. His deep voice was a true treat to listen to through the performance. Collectively, the Brides moved with singular grace in the lovely “Quilting Dance” and sounded sweet and joyful on “Spring, Spring, Spring.” I enjoyed the cuteness of Renfrow’s Alice and Whitmore’s Gideon, and found myself wishing that we got to see more of Milgrim’s Benjamin. He had a presence about him that seemed to be poised for just a bit more to do. I couldn’t find any credits given to the young pair of actors who played the grandkids in the program, strangely enough—if you happen to know who they were, please tell them I said “They done good!” in my “Oregon frontiersman” voice! 

Director Josh Rhodes and Associate Director Lee Wilkins put this talented cast through their paces, as they teamed up on the choreography. While they didn’t have quite so many incredulous moments during the big dance numbers as was in the film—particularly during the social event—no one should be too surprised nor disappointed in that. What the studios could get away with in 1954 was a lot less scrutinized by actors’ unions and insurance companies, I’m sure. While nobody river-danced on a rolling log across the spacious Muny stage, nobody broke any bones either, other than the proverbial leg for theatrical luck. The choreography was perfectly fine, showing off Amy Clark’s wonderful costumes and Tommy Kurzman’s wigs. Michael Schweikardt’s set design, Jason Lyons’ lighting, and Caite Hevner’s video design all came together brilliantly to pull off the big visual effect of the avalanche scene—well done. The singing and dialogue came across loud and clear thanks to John Shivers and David Partridge, who have the added challenge of competing with the ambient sounds of crickets, frogs, cicadas, helicopters, and occasionally Forest Park traffic. Other than a couple of choppers flyovers, the natural sounds of St. Louis’ favorite park only added to the experience. Music Director Valerie Gebert and Music Supervisor Sinai Tabak, who along with Larry Blank and Mark Cumberland provided additional arrangements and orchestrations, lead the excellent Muny Orchestra to create that old-timey foot-stomping sound of frontier music.  

It was with some trepidation that I sat down to watch Stanley Dolen’s classic film. It was with joy that I rose to give the Muny’s production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers a standing ovation. I won’t have any such reservations about seeing it again, and neither should you. There’s still a couple of days left to catch this fine show as before it closes on August 18, 2021. For ticket information, please visit https://muny.org/tickets/ If you can’t make it to this show, get a jump start on the rest of your summer’s entertainment with tickets to On Your Feet!--the Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, and Chicago, the last two shows in the 103rd Season at the Muny. Please check the Muny webiste if you have concerns about Covid-19.  

4.5 / 5.0